“Egregious Misconduct” Blamed in College Football Player’s Death

Exactly two years after Frostburg State University football player Derek Sheely sustained a fatal head injury during practice, his family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the NCAA, coach Tom Rogish and several others.

Following a pre-season drill at the Division III school in western Maryland, Sheely collided with a defensive back and collapsed on the sideline.  He underwent several surgeries to relieve massive brain swelling but he never regained consciousness before he died at the R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore on August 28, 2011.

The Washington Times obtained the 63-page complaint, which said “utter incompetence, egregious misconduct, false hope and a reckless disregard for player health and safety led to the tragic death of Derek Sheely.”

A Frostburg State representative declined to comment on the lawsuit, and the NCAA did not immediately return a request for comment.

Also named in the lawsuit filed in Montgomery County Circuit Court are Frostburg running backs coach Jamie Schmacher, assistant athletic trainer Michael Sweitzer Jr. and helmet manufacturer Schutt Sports.

Sheely was a senior fullback and team captain who majored in history and political science. He hoped to work for the CIA one day. Four times in a three-day span that August, Sheely started to bleed “profusely” from his forehead after sustaining hits in full-contact exercises similar to Oklahoma drills where the fullback and linebacker collide at full speed. Two players were concussed during the drill earlier in the pre-season.

The lawsuit said “pre-season practices at Frostburg served more as a gladiatorial thrill for the coaches than learning sessions for the players. Practices involved virtually unlimited, full-contact, helmet-to-helmet collisions.”

Each time Sheely’s forehead wound reopened, Sweitzer put on a bandage, allowed him to return to practice, the lawsuit contended, and didn’t evaluate him for concussion or insure that his helmet fit properly.

It was alleged that during drills, Schumacher encouraged players to “lead with your head” and use your “hat first” and cursed at them if they didn’t comply.

On August 22, 2011, Sheely was bandaged and returned to contact for the final time. After another drill, Sheely told Schumacher that he “didn’t feel right” and had a “headache.”

“Stop your bitching and moaning and quit acting like a pussy and get back out there Sheely!” the lawsuit claims Schumacher said.

In December 2011, Sheely’s mother, Kristen, wrote an extended letter to NCAA president Mark Emmert that expressed surprise the organization hadn’t investigated the circumstances surrounding her son’s death.

NCAA health and safety director, David Klossner, sent a four-paragraph response four months later. The letter expressed his condolences and noted that each school is responsible for the safety and welfare of athletes and that risk cannot be completely removed from athletics.  Klossner suggested that the mother visit the NCAA’s health and safety web page.

This is yet another case added to the deluge of litigation targeting the NCAA.  Among them is a federal lawsuit seeking class-action status on behalf of four former college athletes claiming the organization does not do enough to protect athletes from head injuries. The case was stayed earlier this month as the parties enter settlement discussions.

It was discovered that many of the allegations cited against the NCAA in the Sheely lawsuit, were similar to prior emails football players sent to the NCAA.  They include an April 2008 email to the NCAA from Division III football player Rickey Hamilton.

“There are multiple players on my team who have suffered injuries and have not had the correct treatment for them,” Hamilton wrote. “We are trying to see what we can do about this because this is not fair to the student athletes who put their all into something and can’t even get the proper treatment needed.”

The NCAA requires each member school to have a concussion management plan on file, but Klossner admitted in a deposition earlier this year that the plans aren’t reviewed or enforced.

Injured players, including those with concussions, were labeled as ‘gripers’ and forced to clean the field following practice, the lawsuit states.

“The Plaintiffs,” the lawsuit said, “have endured and they will continue to endure an unbearable amount of emotional pain each time they walk past Derek’s empty bedroom, touch his clothing or a photograph or paper which relates to Derek, watch a football game, see a commercial produced by the NCAA, see the NCAA’s insignia, see the number ‘40’ (Derek’s jersey number), among multiple other pain-staking moments.”

It is time the NCAA provides athletes with treatment for their injuries. How many more deaths and/or injuries will occur before change takes place? Feel free to comment on this blog post. For more information, contact one of our Gacovino Lake attorneys at 1-800-246-HURT (4878).

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